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Summary:

Gabe Rivera has been at the vanguard of technology driven journalism through sites like Techmeme and Mediagazer. At a recent event, he discussed the limits of algorithms and the need for human curation.

Gabe Rivera is a quiet high priest of the tech and media world whose websites, Techmeme and Mediagazer, use algorithms to pluck headlines and shape news coverage. But Rivera himself holds some very traditional views about the role of editors and how people like to read. At a gathering in New York on Wednesday, he pulled back the curtain on his operation — part way at least — and talked about what he might do next.

In case you’re unfamiliar, Techmeme is a must-read news aggregator for Silicon Valley types that also acts as a gold star dispenser for tech writers who vie to appear on it. Rivera, the site’s founder, is thoughtful and soft-spoken in person but comes across on Twitter like this:

Rivera has made an out-sized impression on tech journalism not only as an influencer but also for his use of robot-style publishing. Techmeme and its sister site Mediagazer both rely on online signals to determine if an article should appear and also whether to move it up or down the page. Only in the last four years has Rivera introduced human editors, based in time zones stretching from Bulgaria to Australia, to help the robots do their jobs.

At the event in New York, which was hosted by media company Outbrain, Rivera explained to Business Insider’s Steve Kovach why algorithms will never be able to curate as effectively as humans.

“A lot of people who think they can go all the way with the automated approach fail to realize a news story has become obsolete,” said Rivera, explaining that an article can be quickly superseded even if it receives a million links or tweets.

This is why Rivera now relies on human editors to shepherd the headlines that bubble up and swat down the inappropriate ones. He argues any serious tech or political news provider will always have to do the same.

Rivera is also not enthused about social-based news platforms — sites like LinkedIn Today or Flipboard that assemble news stories based on what your friends are sharing on social media. Asked if Techmeme will offer a social-based news feed, Rivera said don’t count on it.

“People like to go to the New York Times and look at what’s on the front page because they have a lot of trust in what editors decide and they know other people read it. We want to do the same thing,” he said. “There’s value in being divorced from your friends … I’d rather see what’s on the front of the New York Times.”

As for the business of Techmeme, Rivera says the site relies on three forms of advertising, all of which could be considered “native advertising” — the mantra now being preached in publishing circles. Specifically, Techmeme makes money from sponsored posts, job listings and event posts.

Finally, Rivera offered a frank and sanguine take on his plans to tune up his sites for the mobile age.

“I think the mobile site gets the job done but it could be snappier. We should do our own app. But we have 2 developers and one of them is me.”

(Image by Sarah Holmlund via Shutterstock)

  1. Sree Vijaykumar Thursday, November 29, 2012

    Loving this line of thinking.. Exactly what drives us at TradeBriefs.. combination of human judgement and technology gives a more complete content experience – combining relevance with discovery..

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  2. The site covers sites that are way too mainstream,most of them have very little clue about tech (yeah they shouldn’t but does anyone even produces tech jurnos?). Looking at Engadget or The Verge you get pretty much the same info just presented differently.They also seem to go for what creates more buzz but based on that the Kardasians are more interesting than Einstein. and you end up pushing the same articles everybody is pushing,just a bit later.

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    1. @jjj Interesting – “Looking at Engadget or The Verge you get pretty much the same info just presented differently.”

      This is true and it can be proven. I created a site that provides a similar analysis to Techmeme, of the day’s top tech news – http://www.techfiltered.com. One of the factors in grouping stories together is how similar they are to each other. We’ve been analyzing this data and can determine what sites generally report the same things with very little variance. We will be publishing this data in January.

      A lot of it has to do with the nature of tech “journalism”. Go to a newspaper like NYTimes if you’re looking for in-depth reporting of a story. The well known tech blogs serve mainly to break stories quickly, and publish stories fed to them from PR agencies. Most well known tech blogs are fed stories from PR agencies on behalf of their clients, which is why you’ll see the same sites cover the same stories at the same time, BusinessInsider, TechCrunch, etc. There is some value to publishing PR fed stories – like you said – there may not be a whole lot of knowledge about among these writers each internet industry (there are many industries bringing their business to the web and they all leverage the web in different ways). You’ll get the best stories from writers who consistently cover specific web models/industries.

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  3. I would like to know how they zeroed in on these two domains

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    1. Both are domains that see a lot of crosslinking of content. There are actually 4 sites, the 2 not mentioned are Memeorandum, a site for political and current event news, and Wesmirch, which features celebrity and tabloid news. The Techmeme approach would probably not work for, as an example, food & wine.

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      1. Gabe also created Ballbug, news aggregator for baseball fans. It works reasonably well and, from what I understand, serves as a sandbox for testing new ranking and grouping algorithms.

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  4. Luis Perez Cadena Thursday, November 29, 2012

    And that’s why Techmeme is biased toward certain startups and companies…

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    1. Maybe so, but the personalization- and data-driven news and commentary filter bubble is far worse.

      You only see the information that confirms your own personal biases and selfish interests.

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  5. Heard of reddit?

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    1. Yes, but what is your point? Reddit is not a replacement for Techmeme, because you will not get links to related articles in Reddit.

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  6. I think a hybrid of quality curation will be the de rigor for quality news in the future. The folks like Gabe that can provide a layer of value added editing as in the case of Techmeme, will see success as the news world evolves.

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  7. There is room for a variety of methods. Outlets that produce, *EDIT* and curate their own stories give us a valuable service and content that wouldn’t come from perky little blogs about the latest funny video. Automated bots give us a wide range of what is grabbing attention. This middle way is a good bridge. All have their own value, and as a geezer who worked in news before there was a webby-netty thingy, I like that we now have all three. I envy today’s generation and their access to information that reaches so much further than my library and television did in the 1970s. Back in the day when men were men and, um, something or other about sheep.

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  8. the fundamental flaw in his thinking is ONE FRONT PAGE FOR EVERYONE

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  9. there is a name for it MINDSHARE MANAGEMENT

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  10. The other name for it is common cultural product. Choose your poison

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